The “Parson’s Tale” is the final story of The Canterbury Tales.
In the “General Prologue,” the Parson is described as a ‘good man of religion.’ He is erudite, scholarly, devout, and forgiving. The Parson believes that in order to be a good priest he must be perfect, because sheep follow their shepherd, but only if he leads by example. Above all, the Parson is a man of integrity: an essential example of Christian humility and charity. Naturally, his tale is not a fictional story (despite the Host’s request), and instead it is a perfectly honest and perfectly dreary essay -certainly not a tale that will be seriously considered as the winner in the competition.
By now, the sun is quickly setting and the group has reached the edge of town. The Host says, “fulfilled is my sentence and my decree” (17) –does this mean the Host has abandoned his initial request of each pilgrim to tell two stories on the road to Canterbury and, again, two tales on the return route? The only pilgrim who has come close to fulfilling his oath of telling two stories en route to Canterbury is Chaucer himself, but only because his first tale was interrupted and abandoned.
The Host asks the Parson to tell his tale quickly, but instead we are offered a lengthy theological diatribe that ends with a plea to the reader not to blame the author if offense is found in the tales. In blending his own voice with the Parson’s, Chaucer disguises his own particular preferences against the common prejudices of his era, namely the political power of the church, despite his numerous satirical jabs at clerical overreach throughout the Tales.
The form of the “Parson’s Tale” is prose, a form which the Host has already expressed distaste for (see Chaucer’s first tale). The tale, which is hardly a tale at all, discusses the topic of Penitence and its three affects, it is Chaucer’s apologia for his rowdy and occasionally ribald, but entertaining, collection of tales. As in Plato, Chaucer ends his Tales with an appeal to conventional wisdom, while also addressing a number of recurring themes throughout the tales, such as marriage (or rather the ongoing dialogue about the nature of a successful partnership). By selecting the Parson as the final storyteller, a man who clearly practices what he preaches, coupled with the fact that his tale is unpalatable, Chaucer highlights the necessity for a certain degree of authorial untruth in telling a tale. The idea of authorship and authority (both taking their linguistic roots from the Latin auctoritas) is at the heart of the final tale.
The “Parson’s Tale” is Chaucer’s justification for poetry. What is the best way to convey a message to a group of people? A fable? A poem? A chivalric romance? A philosophic essay? As previously evidenced in the Tales, the travelers find organized theological treatises less persuasive than fables, images, stories, or narratives. Thus, Chaucer sees poetry as superior to theology.
The “Parson’s Tale” ends with a brief note from the author, Chaucer, as he proudly announces his many books and translations (like Boethius) while also professing a meek spirit of contrition and penitence. The epilogue appears to have been written close to the end of Chaucer’s life, perhaps while he dwelled in Westminster Abbey. It contains the seed of great English poetry, like Shakespeare’s Prospero as his ‘revels now are ended.’ Chaucer’s goal of both delighting and informing is now complete, though the promise of two tales apiece is left unfulfilled (perhaps not unlike the failed promise of food and entertainment used to entice Socrates in Plato’s Republic).
Thus concludes my chronological reading of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.
For this reading I used the Broadview Canterbury Tales edition which is based on the famous Ellesmere Manuscript. The Broadview edition closely matches the work of Chaucer’s scribe, Adam Pinkhurst.